The New York Times Replica Edition

Davis Offers a Reminder Of His Dominant Force

By JOVAN BUHA Jovan Buha covers the Lakers for The Athletic.

LAS VEGAS — Anthony Davis roared and stomped toward the sideline opposite the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench. He bumped past Buddy Hield and pounded his chest as he talked to the pro-L.A. crowd.

“I’m him!” Davis screamed at the top of his lungs. “I’m him!”

It was a rare outburst of emotion from the typically reticent Davis — a reaction that signified how badly Davis wanted to win the N.B.A. Cup on Saturday night. Seconds earlier, he had just scored his 10th straight point as part of a 13-0 Lakers run that iced the inseason tournament’s championship game.

With all eyes on Las Vegas for the matchup between the Lakers and the Indiana Pacers, Davis delivered one of the best performances of his future Hall of- Fame career: 41 points, 20 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals in 41 minutes in the 123-109 win.

“I just try to do everything I can to win a basketball game,” said Davis, who returned to his business-as-usual attitude postgame. “Obviously, my teammates put me in a great position to be successful. Obviously, this is special for us, just winning the inaugural in-season tournament. But we want to also win the same thing in June. It’s a step in the right direction, obviously, but even though it’s a big performance, it’s another game and we’ve got to continue to get going starting back on Tuesday.”

Davis’s efforts weren’t enough to win him tournament Most Valuable Player Award honors, which went to his teammate, LeBron James, who had 24 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists against the Pacers. But the lasting image from the championship game will be Davis’s flexing and bellowing.

There was no stopping Davis against Indiana — not even a shot to the groin that dropped him to the ground and caused him to limp for most of the rest of the game. He physically overwhelmed the Pacers until he broke them.

“When he plays like that, there’s probably no one, not many people better than him in the league,” guard Austin Reaves said. “Shout-out to him for doing that tonight, and basically for the whole season we’ve had so far.”

Davis dominated the paint on both ends of the floor: 13 of his 16 made field-goals were in the restricted area, and he drew nine fouls on the Pacers — including three against Myles Turner, who fouled out at the 4:09 mark of the fourth quarter. He was relentless in his pursuit of the rim, rolling into pockets of space, clearing out Pacers defenders for offensive rebounds, and attacking with aggression.

“A.D., just wanting us to enforce our will, impose our will on both sides of the ball, and he’s the guy to do that,” Coach Darvin Ham said. “He’s our anchor. He’s a guy that carries a big load in terms of our points in the paint.”

Saturday’s matchup was a clash of styles. Both teams entered the championship at 6-0, but they took very different approaches.

The Lakers have the N.B.A.’s 22nd-ranked offense and the seventh-ranked defense; the Pacers have the league’s best offense and the 28th-ranked defense. Los Angeles relied on James and Davis in a paint-heavy approach and an army of long, athletic wings flanking Davis defensively. They won their first six games by an average of 20.2 points per game.

Indiana, meanwhile, plays at the fastest pace in the league and has one of the game’s premier playmakers and pick-and-roll practitioners in Tyrese Haliburton. They beat the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers en route to the title game — a much harder path than the Lakers’.

The stylistic differences very much played out. The Lakers struggled outside of the paint and made only two 3-pointers (a season-low). Los Angeles became just the third team this season to fail to make a 3-pointer in a single half.

On the other end, Ham and his coaching staff implemented an effective defensive game plan tailored to neutralize the Pacers’ strengths. They attacked Haliburton with Cam Reddish, Jarred Vanderbilt and Max Christie, hounding him full court and around screens off the ball. When he ran pick-and-rolls — one of the most efficient plays in the league — the Lakers mixed up their coverages, between switching, blitzing and aggressively playing up to the level of the screen.

Davis, one of the best pick-androll defenders in the league, was pivotal in the success of L.A.’s strategy. He’d corral Haliburton long enough for the primary defender to recover, and make the necessary backline rotations once an action progressed or the Pacers created an advantage. Haliburton still scored 20 points and dished 11 assists, but he had more turnovers (three) than the previous three games combined (two).

“Any time I step on the floor, I know I’m the anchor of the defense, giving guys the freedom to press up and get some ball pressure, and if they get beat, I’m there at the rim to alter the shot or block it,” Davis said. “But that’s my job.”

The win doesn’t count in the standings for the Lakers; neither do the stats. Los Angeles and Indiana will technically play 83 regular-season games. Davis’s 40-20 game won’t be logged in the annals of the 2023-24 season. It won’t be top of mind when voters scan box scores and game logs ahead of awards season.

But the Lakers’ in-season tournament

A rare emotional outburst in one of his best performances.

dominance is real — a medal and another trophy to remind us of Davis’s immense value within the half-decade superstar partnership between him and James.

“We feed off one another,” Davis said. “Thursday, LeBron had it going. Tonight, it was me, and he still did his thing.”

At this point in his 21-year career, James has played longer with Davis than he did with Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Chris Bosh or Kevin Love.

Davis is in many ways the ideal partner for James: He’ll happily cede the spotlight, often preferring to do joint news conferences that feature four James questions for every one Davis question. He doesn’t care about who gets the credit or the awards. He carries the load defensively and in the paint. And every few games, he pops off for a monster offensive performance that reduces James’s burden.

“Everything, especially at the later stage of my career, to be able to get a young, hungry alpha male to go out there and just do the things that he does,” James said of what Davis means to him. “It’s definitely given me an opportunity to be able to not only watch as he’s continued to grow, but also be able to try to inspire him as well as he continues to grow in his career and vice versa.”

Despite James’s co-sign, Davis remains a lightning rod for criticism, particularly because nights like Saturday are held against him. He’s always compared to his idealized self. Every game is a reassessment of his standing in the league.

The discourse is unlikely to go away after the in-season tournament championship victory. It will likely take another championship to truly solidify Davis’s place in the national discussions alongside the likes of Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.

But Davis has made it clear that he no longer needs the external validation. He stopped seeking it years ago — sometime between the 2020 championship and Saturday. He’s at peace with who he is. After all, he’s him.

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2023-12-11T08:00:00.0000000Z

2023-12-11T08:00:00.0000000Z

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